Trauma isn’t always a bleeding head wound. Often, it’s invisible, not just to others, but to yourself. It can hide deep under the surface, affecting you and your loved ones in ways you may not understand.
We’ve been a couple since high school, and we’ve been through a lot together in the past twenty years, including Jason’s deployment to Afghanistan. We have a close-knit family, financial stability, and two high-profile careers. Nonetheless, last year, at the age of 37, we both learned that we’d unknowingly been suffering from post-traumatic stress.
It’s been more than a decade since Jason came home from Afghanistan, and even as our symptoms worsened, in all that time we never connected the dots. Despite Jason’s hyper-vigilance that often found him awake in the middle of the night, patrolling the house in search of intruders, or Diana’s growing anxiety about staying in the house alone with our son, we told ourselves five lies about trauma and mental health that prevented us from seeking treatment until it was almost too late.
If any of the following rings familiar, please don’t wait to get help.
Lie #1: “I can’t have post-traumatic stress, because what I went through wasn’t as bad as . . . “
Jason: I felt like I hadn’t done enough in Afghanistan to “earn” post-traumatic stress, so I refused to acknowledge the possibility. I made the mistake of trying to rank—and therefore disregard—my own trauma for many years, and that only made things worse. If something happened and you haven’t felt right since, then you should address it. To quote a friend, “Somewhere there’s a vet who was in the first wave at the D-Day invasion telling himself to get over it because he was all the way in the back of the landing craft.”
Thinking “other people have it worse” doesn’t actually diminish your own trauma, it just diminishes your power to heal, because your brain only knows what you experienced. Whether it’s combat, a serious accident, or an assault, there are many possible sources of trauma. Telling yourself to get over it, or thinking “I shouldn’t let this bother me,” will get you nowhere.
Diana: For a long time I wouldn’t allow myself to believe I was impacted by trauma. I didn’t serve overseas. I didn’t do what Jason did. There had to be some other explanation for what I was going through. There had to be something wrong with me.
Jason: Few people know much about post-traumatic stress, but even fewer know about Secondary PTS. When you live with someone who constantly tells you how dangerous the world is, how vulnerable you and your family are, or who wakes you up to recount their violent night terrors, you are inhaling their trauma as if it were smoke from their lit cigarette.
Diana: But since we didn’t know Jason had PTS, we had no idea that my issues were related, and so I explained them away, dismissing them as anxiety.
Terrified of something happening to our son or myself, I had daymares (nightmares that occur while you’re awake) of terrible events unfolding throughout the day. I even developed the same hypervigilance as Jason, but we never connected the two until Jason’s therapist at the V.A. suggested I get therapy for trauma, as well.
In one of my first appointments with my own therapist, she defined trauma as “anything that is too much, too fast, too soon, or not enough for too long.” When she said that, I burst into tears. Hearing those words had allowed me—for the first time—to acknowledge that what I was going through was real.
Though her definition may seem broad, what Jason and I have learned is that trauma is trauma. Questioning the validity of your experience is a dangerous waste of time.
Lie #2: “I’ll feel better once I…”
Jason: I spent years believing I was one accomplishment away from outrunning my problems. I’d tell myself, “I’ll feel better once I…” But it never worked, because once I reached a goal, the trauma was still there, only now it was even stronger.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in the last ten months is that suppressing negative feelings or emotionally disruptive thoughts is not a strategy. In fact, there’s a name for this behavior: avoidance.
You may engage in personally destructive behavior to block out the pain, but avoidance will only get more difficult over time; moreover, if you are successful in numbing yourself against bad feelings, you’ll quickly find you’ve numbed yourself to the good ones too. Once you can no longer feel anything at all, you’ve arrived at what’s called “emotional numbness,” and suddenly life seems full of pain and completely devoid of joy.
Diana: I kept trying to find little hacks to deal with my anxiety. I read books, listened to podcasts, even saw someone specializing in anxiety, but nothing worked. So I just started avoiding what I thought were triggers for my pain. When Jason was traveling—which was frequently—I would basically move to my parents’ house with our son so that I could avoid being alone and having panic attacks. But you can’t hack PTS.
Neither of our avoidance tactics worked because both Jason and I left the root cause untreated. If you broke your arm, you wouldn’t say, “You know, this will probably just get better with time.” You understand that left ignored, your arm will get progressively worse. Trauma is an injury, and if it isn’t healing on its own, you need to get it treated. Like putting a cast on a broken arm, therapy can help you heal.
Jason: Either you deal with your trauma or your trauma deals with you. You’ll never outrun it, because it’s faster than you. You have to stop running, turn around, and confront it.
Lie #3: “I’m not obsessed with control, I’m the only rational person here.”
Jason: Early on, my therapist at the V.A. asked me what percentage of my daily life I believed I could control. My answer was 85 percent. He said that the average person will answer somewhere around 50 percent, and that trauma survivors often choose a much higher number, like 80-90 percent. In reality, he said, the truth is actually about three percent.
Desire for control in every part of my life felt like a matter of life and death. When I didn’t have control, I didn’t just feel enormous levels of stress, I felt like I was dying.
I often turned to anger or shame so that I could at least feel some sense of control. It worked like this: If I felt anger at myself, then at least I had something to focus on, and that focus felt like control.
Sometimes this pattern made me work even harder toward some sense of redemption, but mostly all it did was put up walls between me and the people I love.
To paraphrase Yoda’s wisdom about the path to the dark side: Fear of losing control leads to anger, and anger leads us to cause suffering in others.
Diana: I never felt as though my behavior was “controlling.” Instead, I felt like Jason and I—with our constant focus on safety and security—were the world’s only rational people. We couldn’t see the effect that might have on our lives or, eventually, on our son’s life, because we were too busy trying to save everyone.
After many months of therapy, we both learned that our desire for control was the cause of much of our suffering. We learned to become more comfortable with being uncomfortable. We often remind each other to focus on the three percent we can actually control. This has become such a big mantra in the house that we recently got temporary “3%” tattoos and are considering making them permanent…once we’re satisfied it’s safe, of course.
Lie #4: “My physical problems have nothing to do with my mental health.”
Jason: I thought I had “lower back problems,” but what I hadn’t realized was how much of my discomfort was caused by stress. After my announcement, my back pain was so severe that my first several therapy sessions took place while I laid down on an ice pack. Now that I’m mentally healthier, I have far less pain and can exercise with a frequency I haven’t been capable of since the Army.
Sleep is another example. I went almost 12 years without a good night’s rest. Some people just don’t sleep well, I thought. Now that I do sleep well, I know the truth. Sleep problems can be a check engine light. Your brain might be signaling that something is wrong.
Diana: Our goal in sharing all of our ailments, whether it’s Jason’s nightmares and bad back, or my twitchy eye, fatigue, and migraines, is to demonstrate that stress and trauma can manifest themselves in our bodies in all kinds of ways. And often we turn to a whole host of doctors to treat our symptoms before realizing that the root cause is what’s going on between our ears.
Lie #5: “This is just who I am.”
Diana: When Jason first started therapy, his biggest question was “Do you think it’s possible for me to ever feel real happiness?” In his heart he was afraid that the answer was no, and that fear made him hesitant about therapy. Likewise, when Jason’s therapist recommended that I see someone for trauma, my first instinct was, “I’ve already tried seeing a therapist—I’ve already tried all kinds of things.” We were both full of reasons for why we were broken in a way that wasn’t fixable.
Now we know just how wrong we were, because we’ve seen the changes in one another. We know that post-traumatic growth is possible and that it’s absolutely worth it. Jason’s nightmares have significantly decreased, and so has my anxiety. We’re so much less controlling—we think. We like to joke that we’ve gone from “hyper-vigilant” to “vigilant.” I haven’t had a panic attack in 10 months. We share so many more laughs and, for the first time in many years, feel connected to and seen by one another.
It hasn’t been an easy journey and we haven’t yet arrived at our destination, but we now have a map of where we are going and an eagerness to use it.
Jason: I spent over a decade thinking happiness was for other people, but not anymore, because I feel it on a regular basis. I look forward to each day, and I want to bring as many others with me on this journey as possible.
There are a lot of different kinds of treatment. Just because something hasn’t worked for someone you know doesn’t mean there isn’t a solution out there for you. At the V.A., I did cognitive processing therapy and prolonged exposure therapy. Diana went to a private provider for somatic experience therapy. There are dozens of different approaches and one of them is going to work for you.
Above all, don’t get discouraged. The only way out of this thing is to go straight through it, and we’re here to let you know that you can do this, and that you’ll be so glad you did.